Marvel Two-in-One Marvel Masterworks volume 3

By Marv Wolfman, Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter, Ron Wilson, Ernie Chan, Marie Severin, Sal Buscema, John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0964-2 (HB)

Above all else, Marvel has always been about team-ups. The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing, or battling – often both – with less well-selling company characters – was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the same deal DC had with Batman in The Brave and the Bold.

Although confident in their new title, they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch. In those long-ago days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, after the runaway success of Spider-Man’s guest vehicle Marvel Team-Up, the House of Ideas carried on the trend with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic and popular member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12, before awarding him his own team-up title, of which this third eclectic compendium gathers together (in hardback or digital editions) the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #21-36, covering November 1976 – February 1978.

Preceded by a comprehensive reminiscence from artist Ron Wilson in his Introduction, the action begins with Marvel Two-In-One #21 (November 1976), which featured a pairing with legendary pulp superman Doc Savage. For years this tale has been omitted from collections: unavailable for fans due to Marvel having no access to the Man of Bronze’s proprietary rights. Thankfully an accommodation has been reached, allowing ‘Black Sun Lives!’ by Bill Mantlo, Wilson & Pablo Marcos to be included here. Good thing too, as the tale of cosmic peril across two eras is a cracker that would impact upon many epics still to be seen in Ben Grimm’s fantastic future…

In 1976, a desperate young woman named Janice Lightner asks The Thing and teammate Johnny Storm to prevent her brother Tom from completing an experiment that will destroy the world. In a contiguous moment four decades previously, Janice’s mother approaches Clark Savage Junior and his troubleshooting team to help her end a mad project her husband has initiated. Nobel laureate Raymond Lightner intends using his sky cannon to tap the infinite power of the stars.

As two teams “simultaneously” converge on Lightner’s ancestral home the cannon is triggered, shredding the time barrier and bringing the heroes together to face the combined creature called Blacksun, formed when father and son merged across the decades…

Ultimately triumphant, the heroes separate as the timestream heals, leaving Tom Lightner in need of medical attention…

That comes as Ben contacts physician Dr. Don Blake, leading to #22-23’s Thor pairing against the Egyptian God of Death in ‘Touch Not the Hand of Seth!’ (Mantlo, Wilson & Marcos); a fantastic cosmic extravaganza concluded with the assistance of Jim Shooter & Marie Severin in ‘Death on the Bridge to Heaven!’

Ben then enjoys a far more prosaic time with neophyte hero Black Goliath as a devastated downtown Los Angeles asks ‘Does Anyone Remember… the Hijacker?’ (by Mantlo, Shooter, Sal Buscema & Marcos).

A new era opens as a much delayed and postponed team-up with Iron Fist, the Living Weapon heralds the start of writer/editor Marv Wolfman’s impressive run on the title. ‘A Tale of Two Countries!’ – illustrated by Wilson & Grainger – sees Ben and the master martial artist shanghaied to the Far East as part of a Machiavellian plan to conquer the island kingdom of Kaiwann. Naturally, they both strenuously object to the abduction…

The innate problem with team-ups was always a lack of continuity – something Marvel had always prided itself upon – and Wolfman sought to address it by the simple expedient of having stories link-up through evolving, overarching plots taking the Thing from place to place and guest to guest to guest.

Here the tactic begins with bustling bombast in ‘The Fixer and Mentallo are Back and the World will Never be the Same!’(Wilson & Marcos) uniting Ben with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle a brace of conniving bad guys trying to steal killer-cyborg-from-an-alternate-future Deathlok.

The good guys spectacularly fail and the artificial assassin is co-featured in #27 as ‘Day of the Demolisher!’ sees the now-reprogrammed killer targeting the inauguration of new US President Jimmy Carter. This time Big Ben has an alien ace up his sleeve and the hit fails…

The tempestuous Sub-Mariner shares the watery limelight in #28 as Ben and his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters ferry the deactivated Deathlok to a London-based boffin. When they are shot down in mid-Atlantic by a mutated fish-man, Grimm must fight against and beside Namor whilst Alicia languishes ‘In the Power of the Piranha!’ (with John Tartaglione inks).

Master of Kung Fu Shang-Chi then steps in as Ben and Alicia finally landed in London. Inked by Sam Grainger, ‘Two Against Hydra’ sees aforementioned expert Professor Kort snatched by the sinister secret society before the Thing can consult him: the savant’s knowledge being crucial to Hydra’s attempts to revive their own living weapon…

As part of Marvel’s compulsive ongoing urge to protect their trademarks, a number of their top male characters had been spun off into female iterations. Thus, at the end of 1976 Ms. Marvel debuted (with a January 1977 cover-date), She-Hulkarrived at the end of 1979 (Savage She-Hulk #1 February 1980) whilst Jessica Drew premiered in Marvel Spotlight #32 as The Spider-Woman, a mere month after Ms. Marvel…

Her cameo appearance in Marvel Two-In-One #29 (July 1977) began an extended 6-chapter saga designed as a promotional lead-in to her own series. ‘Battle Atop Big Ben!’ (#30 by Wolfman, John Buscema & Marcos) saw her meet the Thing as she struggled to be free of her Hydra controllers, even as a couple of petty thieves embroiled Ben and Alicia in a complex and arcane robbery scheme involving a strange chest buried beneath Westminster Abbey.

Unable to kill Ben, the Arachnid Dark Angel kidnaps Alicia, who becomes ‘My Sweetheart… My Killer!’ (#31 by Wilson & Sam Grainger) after Kort and Hydra transform the helpless waif into a spidery monster. In #32’s ‘And Only the Invisible Girl Can Save Us Now!’ (inked by Marcos) Sue Storm joins the repentant Spider-Woman and distraught Thing in battling and curing an out-of-control Alicia. In the wings, those two robbers continue their campaign of acquisition and accidentally awake a quartet of ancient elemental horrors…

It requires the magics of the Arthurian sorcerer Modred the Mystic to help Spider-Woman and Ben triumph over the monsters in the concluding chapter ‘From Stonehenge… With Death!’ before a semblance of normality is restored…

Back to business as usual in Marvel Two-In-One #34, Ben and sky-soaring Defender Nighthawk tackle a revived and cruelly misunderstood alien freed from an antediluvian cocoon in ‘A Monster Walks Among Us!’ (Wolfman, Wilson & Marcos) before Ernie Chan joins Wolfman to illustrate a 2-part wrap-up to one of Marvel’s recently folded series.

Marvel Two-In-One often acted as a clearing-house for old, unresolved series and plot-lines and #35 saw Ben dispatched by the US Air Force through a time-portal in the Bermuda Triangle to a fantastic world of dinosaurs, robots, dinosaurs, E.T.’s and more dinosaurs as ‘Enter: Skull the Slayer and Exit: The Thing’ details the short history and imminent deaths of a group of modern Americans trapped in a bizarre time-lost land.

Marooned in the past with them, it takes the intervention of Mister Fantastic to retrieve Ben and his new friends in #36’s ‘A Stretch in Time…’, bringing this compilation to a satisfactory halt.

These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are unarguably of variable quality, but whereas some might feel rushed and ill-considered they are balanced by many timeless classics, still as captivating today as they always were.

Even if artistically the work varies from only adequate to superb, most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s lots of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts ‘n’ all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 1976, 1977, 1978, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.